Here Comes Generation Z

Generation Z has been shaped by technology as much as economic hardship, which combined to produce a seemingly improved version of the Millennials. As parents, we X-ers haven't done that bad a job.
The overconnected Generation Z.

If, like me, you've been looking for a primer to explain Generation Z, the one that follows the "Y" millennials, take a look at this 56-slide presentation by Sparks & Honey, a hard-to-pin-down organization that's part marketing agency and part think tank.

Gen Z-ers are already the biggest generational group in the U.S., having overtaken the millennials in what Sparks & Honey describes as a coming "demographic tsunami":

I have an even better reason to be interested: three children -- a son, daughter and stepdaughter -- born after 1995, which Sparks & Honey set as the starting point for Generation Z (though others use 1990). They are clearly different from Y-ers in the way they react to the world and if you're a skeptical GenX-er like me, you need to quantify the difference based on data. That's what Sparks & Honey set out to do and their findings describe a generation shaped by technology and austerity.

If Y-ers were the perfectly connected generation, Z-ers are overconnected. They multi-task across five screens: TV, phone, laptop, desktop and either a tablet or some handheld gaming device, spending 41 percent of their time outside of school with computers of some kind or another, compared to 22 percent 10 years ago. Because of that they "lack situational awareness, are oblivious to their surroundings and unable to give directions."

Members of this new generation also have an 8-second attention span, down from 12 seconds in 2000, and 11 percent of them are diagnosed with attention deficiency syndrome, compared to 7.8 percent in 2003. They prefer to communicate in symbols such as Emoji, rather than words: It's faster, less unnecessarily precise and more intuitive. Journalists may have to start experimenting with this new language soon, despite our innate conservatism (here's the story of Russia's Facebook clone Vkontakte and its founder Pavel Durov, told entirely in Emoji).

Generation Z's media world is not two-dimensional, as our was. That's why the new Amazon smartphone with a 3D screen, expected to be revealed today, should fly with GenZ consumers. They also have a new concept of privacy, choosing anonymous and ephemeral communication tools such as SnapChat, Secret and Whisper. Their concept of a social network is not Facebook, which they are leaving in droves (25 percent of Z-ers have quit their parents' and older siblings' network in 2014), but perhaps Facebook's new Slingshot app, with a more dynamic newsfeed that doesn't store content.

The other side of GenZ was molded by social and economic upheaval, and by the way it affected us as their parents.

We have been either unwilling or unable to pamper them the way baby boomers mollycoddled Generation Y-ers. During the global financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession, GenZ-ers have grown up with more people in the house than previous generations, learning humility and sharing. They have also figured out that that the job market as GenX-ers and Y-ers understood it is not working. A whopping 61 percent of U.S. high school students want to be entrepreneurs rather than employees, compared to 43 percent for college students, who are across the generational divide. They don't just want to make money, however: Most would like to turn their hobby into a business, and 37.8 percent hope to "invent something that will change the world."

This greater entrepreneurial spirit and desire to change the world could be interpreted as signs of resilience for a generation in which 73 percent say they were personally affected by the Great Recession, or else as signs of naivete that we as parents have done little to counter. If the latter is true, the attitudes of Z-ers will suffer a reality check as they get older, messing up their early careers and creating lots of problems for employers, who will find it even harder to retain Z-ers than Y-ers.

There are a few things on which we can congratulate ourselves as parents. GenZ is the most tolerant generation ever, color-blind and unconstrained by traditional gender roles. Because of this our children are less likely to have families as we still know them, or continue any ethnic traditions to which we may still cling -- but nor will they be bigots. Also, drug and alcohol use are down dramatically among Z-ers. I like to think that's because we did a much better job than our parents telling kids about our substance experiments.

There is, however, an unexpected side effect we have to worry about: Food is the Z-er's preferred poison. These foodies are more likely than previous generations to be obese, given their sedentary lifestyle.

We haven't done too bad a job, if Sparks & Honey is to be believed. A Z-er is, in many ways, a Y-er 2.0: more advanced, speedier and more adaptable:

We've achieved this without creating much more of a communication gap: We can still relate to our kids more easily than our parents were able to relate to us. The tricks of the Z-ers are not that hard for most of us to master and their life goals, happily, tend to be extensions of our own, often unrealized, dreams.

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